Yesterday I did something that I don’t often do; I ‘twitched’ a bird, I don’t usually do this partly for reasons of practicality but also by choice as I am not really into the twitching scene – so when I do have a twitch it has to be for something really worth it. For readers not up on the birding lingo a ‘twitch’ is when you travel to a location for the sole purpose of seeing one particular bird that has been reported by someone else, this will nearly always be a rare or unusual bird – which usually makes it worth the effort.
So I was heading south, to the town of Newhaven, which is on the coast not far west of Beachy head, there is an area of rough scrubland with a tidal creek here known as Tide Mills that is good for birds. For the last 3 days a juvenile Red-backed Shrike had made this patch its temporary home and was seemingly fearless of humans as it was hunting and perching within a few metres of observers. I quite simply could not resist going; it was being ridiculously obliging, plus it would be my first ever Red-backed Shrike.
These are interesting birds as they used to be regular breeders throughout the British Isles but went extinct as a breeding species in the mid-eighties, only a few pairs now breed sporadically in parts of Scotland. So the only Red-backed Shrikes now seen in England are migrants either heading north from their wintering grounds in Africa in the spring or going back south in the autumn – probably from breeding grounds in Scandinavia. Adult males are a sight to behold – with brick-red backs, grey heads with a black eye-mask and white underparts, juveniles are a soft brown with a faint mask, a paler belly with scaling and only a hint of red on the back.
Despite their small size (about as big as a Starling) these are active carnivores with a thick hooked bill that will mostly consume beetles and other insects but are capable of catching and eating small birds and reptiles. When I turned up at Tide Mills there were a few other birders present with scopes and cameras trained on the bird, it was showing very well indeed – at one time perching on a bush not more than 8 metres away. I watched it for about one and a half hours during which time it was quite active hunting beetles; it would perch for some time on a prominent twig, scanning the ground, then every now and then would flit down with a short glide to snatch the unfortunate invertebrate before returning to the perch to eat. I managed a few photos with my small camera, nothing compared to the others with their huge lenses but decent record shots by my standards.